Chapter 9: Growing Beyond the
In the previous chapter, we differentiated between merirus, "bitterness,"
which we explained as the type of feeling bad that leads to positive
activity, and atzvus, which we translated as depression. Merirus
involves a recognition of one's faults, but it is based on a positive
sense of well-being that pushes us toward a solution. Atzvus is
a lifeless feeling that produces no positive results. It leads
to inactivity and causes personal damage.
Why does one person experience atzvus while another experiences
merirus? What is the source for these different feelings and what
makes us prone to one or the other?
Another question on a related matter: In the previous chapters,
we explained that if a person is overcome with depression, he
should dismiss the disturbing thoughts from his mind. Ultimately,
he should recognize that everything comes from G-d, and everything
is therefore in essence good. But on an immediate and practical
level, the most effective way of dealing with a problem is by
dismissing the negative and depressing thoughts from his mind.
The direct cause for the displeasure we feel is not the negative
event itself, but the fact that we are thinking about it. If a
person were able to dismiss from his mind the thoughts that upset
him, he would not experience so much discomfort.
This concept also requires an explanation. If it is so much more
comfortable just to dismiss negative thoughts from our minds,
why do we not do it easily? Why do we find that one of the most
difficult things for people to do is to dismiss these negative
thoughts from their minds? Why is it so difficult to let go? Why
do we hold on to something that is destructive?
There is one point lying at the core of both issues: yeshus.
Yeshus means obsession with self. It is important for a person
to have a positive self-image. A person should feel strong, confident,
and resilient. Without such positive feelings, he will not function
successfully in his relations with others nor for that matter,
in his relations with G-d.1
But yeshus is more than a positive self-image; it is an approach
in which self lies at the core of the person's being and dominates
consciously and subconsciously the person's approach to life.
This approach is the source of depression. Everything that happens
to such a person, whatever goes on in his life, revolves around
one question: how does it affect his self ?
Things are bound to happen to every person that do not fit his
ideal of the way things should be. And it is likely that all of
us from time to time will fail in certain objectives, or be hurt
by other people. When a person is involved with his ego, these
factors will hurt his sense of self and make him feel bad. But
what is worse is that he holds tight to the hurt and does not
let go. He cannot let go, because it is his self that is involved,
and his self is all that he is concerned with.
A person who is not focused on himself can let go. We do not
always succeed. Our dreams are not always fulfilled, and not all
our relationships work out. A person who is not very self-concerned
can, however, look past a temporary failure, go on with his life,
and do so with happiness.
There are no absolutes here. Everybody thinks about himself,
but the question is: "in which way?" Take the following
example: A physician treats a patient who has a difficult disease,
and he succeeds in curing him. He will surely be happy, but there
are two possible reasons for his happiness.
The first focuses on the good he has accomplished. A person was
suffering, his life was in danger, and now the person will be
able to live a happy and fruitful life and continue to bring joy
to his family.
The second reason focuses on the physician's own power of achievement.
He is proud and happy that he was the one able to effect the cure.
It is his feelings of self that bring him happiness.
The same holds true when, G-d forbid, the situation is reversed
when the physician works very hard to save a patient's life, but
realizes that he may not be successful. One type of person will
be very upset because a person is dying. He sees the sad faces
of everybody in the family, and that hurts him and causes him
The other type of person will also be upset, but his main thought
will be "I failed." He will be upset that he was not
able to cure the patient not so much for the patient's sake, but
more for his own. He is hurt when he does not succeed.
We all are motivated by both these thrusts. Each of us shares
a certain degree of sensitivity to others, and every one of us
has a certain measure of self-concern. The question is, however,
what is the person's prime motivating factor.
A yesh, a person preoccupied with himself, is motivated by his
ego. This is what pushes him forward throughout the day. In contrast,
a person who is buttel, selfless, is focused on the goals he seeks
to accomplish. He is also conscious of his self. He takes responsibility
and knows that others are relying on him. But his self whether
he succeeds or fails is not his main point of focus. His attention
is centered on goals and objectives.
Take the following example: A person gets up in front of a crowd
of 500 people to deliver a lecture. In such a situation, he is
very conscious of himself and what he is doing. Let us take the
same person in a totally different situation: he gets on a bus
and drops a token into the register. Does he know he is walking
onto the bus? Yes. Does he know that he is dropping the token
in? Yes. Is he thinking of himself in the same way he thinks of
himself when he is standing on stage before all those people?
When we carry out our ordinary day-to-day activities, we are
aware of what we are doing, but we do not attach any self-importance
to the deed. Our approach is matter-of-fact, to deal with the
situation in front of us. But when we are on stage, or in other
situations where we are singled out for attention, we become conscious
of our selves ; we think of how we appear to others and what they
think of us.
We see from this that there are two ways of functioning. One
way is to focus on what I am doing; the task in front of me. And
the other is to focus on the fact that I am doing it, to see myself
more than the task I have to perform.
A yesh is a person who puts the focus on himself. His thoughts
revolve around himself, and how everything he encounters will
Bittul, the opposite of yeshus, means nullifying the self. But
it does not mean crushing one's personality; it means dedicating
oneself to a higher purpose than self , and constantly striving
to achieve that purpose. When a person is buttel, he functions
without being aware of himself. And that is healthy and natural.
On the contrary, it is unnatural for a person to be self-conscious.
A professor of podiatry was teaching his students about the movement
of the feet. He explained how the various nerves, muscles, sinews,
and bones in the foot combine to work in harmony to enable us
to walk. After he finished his lecture, he walked out of the classroom
and headed through the campus toward his home. He began thinking
of the dynamics of his movement, how moving his foot requires
the synchronized function of so many different parts of the body.
And he tried to sense how these different functions were taking
place as he proceeded.
Can you imagine what happened? The more he thought, the clumsier
his gait became, and soon he could not walk at all. His feet would
How was he able to start walking again? By dismissing the entire
subject from his mind. He started thinking about a different idea
and paid no attention to his feet; only then was he able to walk.
For when a person becomes too involved with the fact that he is
doing something, he loses his ability to function naturally.
There is another similar story: A rabbi was once walking down
the street. A passerby stopped him and admired his long white
beard. The rabbi smiled graciously. The passerby then asked a
question: "Rabbi, when you sleep at night, is your beard
underneath your blanket or on top of your blanket?"
The rabbi looked very puzzled and said, "To tell you the
truth, I have absolutely no idea."
The passerby did not understand. "You have had this beard
for over forty years. Don't you know what happens with it at night?"
The rabbi told him, "I simply do not know."
For the next two weeks, the rabbi could not fall asleep. First,
he put his beard under his blanket and he felt uncomfortable.
Then he put it on top of the blanket and he felt uncomfortable.
He could not find a comfortable position.
How did he sleep for forty years? When he did not think about
the question, he never had a problem. When did his problems begin?
When he started thinking consciously about something that should
And that is true about so many other things. When we are busy
living our lives and accomplishing things, we do not think about
all the things we are doing. When our minds are focused on what
has to be done, we function happily and successfully. But when
a person becomes self-absorbed and starts thinking about how everything
affects him that is not the natural way and it causes problems.
The differences between yeshus and bittul also lie at the heart
of the differences between atzvus and merirus mentioned before.
We asked: why does a person find it so difficult to let go? If
he is a yesh, he cannot do that because his entire life revolves
around his sense of self. He might understand that it is better
to let go, but he cannot. Although it brings him only irritation
and discomfort, he will continue moping about a given situation
and chewing over the particulars, time and time again. It is as
if he has no other alternative. He is too tied to his self ; that
is what his life is all about.
But a person who is tuned into the deeper dimension of his being,
the G-dliness that is within him, is not attached to his self
to so great a degree. If something unpleasant happens, he is prepared
to let go. He has other things on his mind; he is thinking about
the other tasks he wants to accomplish and is looking toward the
future, not to the past. Moreover, a person who is characterized
by bittul is more accepting of G-d and His plan. In contrast,
when a person is a yesh, his self-preoccupation interferes with
the acceptance of G-d's will, for his ego cannot bear giving up
Another difference between merirus and atzvus is that a person
who experiences atzvus does not think in terms of a practical
solution. He just thinks in terms of how bad it is and how much
worse it can get, what this one thinks about him, and how he is
really not that bad; after all, compare him to his brother, his
sister, his cousin or his next-door neighbor. These are the sort
of thoughts that go through the mind of a depressed person. And
in a certain way, these thoughts grant him a form of satisfaction.
A person who tastes merirus, by contrast, is motivated to seek
a solution to the problem. He is not self-absorbed; he has committed
himself to goals and purposes, and he looks at what happens in
his life and in his environment in terms of these purposes. He
is prepared to confront the problems that he faces, his own faults,
and even his own mistakes. At the time he tastes merirus , he
feels pain real pain, the kind of pain that comes from an honest
appreciation of a situation that requires improvement, not the
self-made pain that comes from ego obsession; but this is only
a temporary feeling. Overall, he is happy, with the true sense
of happiness that comes from being dedicated to a purpose and
nurturing it to fulfillment.
The bottom line is that what causes depression is yeshus, a person's
obsession with his own ego that prevents him from focusing on
his purpose in life and the intent G-d designated for him. Such
a person will remain obsessed with himself and will be unable
to experience the true joy that comes from totally accepting G-d
and His plan and becoming an active partner in its expression.